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Gamifying Youth Empowerment and Climate Resilience

Robert Friedman

Posted August 22, 2013

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Most of the time, climate change makes me feel like we’re racing headlong towards a sheer precipice. And as we get closer to the climate-cliff, tangible evidence of impending calamity is becoming more and more visible, whether it’s wildfires in Colorado or Superstorm Sandy in New York. Climate change is knocking on our collective doorstep and we must begin to face the reality that the time is now to build our communities to be more resilient and more sustainable.

I recently had my image of a dark, climate-disrupted future challenged after participating in a workshop hosted by the Red Hook Initiative (RHI) and Pratt Institute’s Recovery, Adaptation, Mitigation and Planning Program (RAMP) on the topic of climate and community resilience. The participants were young people, ages 15 to 23, from RHI as well as the Rockaway Youth Task Force. Both of these organizations work to empower youth to become leaders and voices for social change and justice in their communities. Most of the participants had personally witnessed Sandy and the ensuing crisis in their communities. Many were left wondering, what, if anything, could be done to prevent future disasters from sweeping their communities out to sea.

The workshop, called “CoastSmart,” is actually a game adapted from one that was developed through a partnership between the State of Maryland, the Consensus Building Institute and the M.I.T. - U.S.G.S. Science Impact Collaborative. The CoastSmart platform is intended to bring individuals together to roleplay developing new and innovative solutions to sea-level rise and other coastal issues stemming from climate change.

This modified version of CoastSmart, produced by graduate students at Pratt’s Programs for Sustainable Planning and Development, simulates a community meeting in which players are given various and sometimes opposing stakeholder roles, including an ecologist, a merchant association president, an Office of Emergency Management representative, a planner, a president of the local realtors association, a representative from a community-based organization and the local tenant association president.  Each young person was assigned a different role to play and was tasked with negotiating his or her position with the goal of ultimately reaching consensus.  The group had to reach a minimum total score under a budget in a set amount of time to qualify for city and state funding.













Youth from Red Hook and the Rockaways work with Pratt graduate students during the CoastSmart simulation.

Keep in mind that these young people from Red Hook and the Rockaways had witnessed Sandy firsthand. And as those communities continue to recover and determine how to prevent future destruction, it is imperative that these kids be given a seat at the table and that they be empowered to express their own opinions and concerns about storm prevention and mitigation strategies. These communities are, after all, theirs too, and indeed will be so for longer than the adults who lead them today. The CoastSmart program is one tool in their already impressive toolkits for fulfilling that important mission.

As young people begin to fulfill this mission, the community’s older constituencies need to meet their own responsibilities by giving youth their rightful seat at the table. In my experience, and unfortunately, young peoples’ opinions are often marginalized, based on perceptions that they lack of experience, knowledge and understanding. This CoastSmart session proved these perceptions wrong. These young people from frontline communities came alive negotiating their various stakes, even ones that were particularly difficult for them to support, like that of a climate-denier. For me, the sense of empowerment and excitement in the room was palpable.

There is an adage commonly voiced by politicians, graduation speakers and parents, that we, as young people, are the leaders of tomorrow. To me, that’s plain wrong. In so many ways, we cannot afford to put off until tomorrow being leaders of our communities. In the face of climate crisis, we must be the leaders of today. In working with these young people from Red Hook and the Rockaways, it was more clear than ever that youth want to lead. They just need to be given the right tools and the platform to make it happen. The CoastSmart game is a step towards bringing youth into the conversation, and to developing solutions to avert future crises.

Photo: Ira Stern

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